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HOUSE DIARIES

Bordeaux

July 12-18
Written July 13 - ???

Dear Friends and Family,

This will be our longest stay in our French tour, seven nights.  I will try to keep up the diaries, but it is hard when we have no "off days" and a big city tends to offer enough to fill every day just learning new things.  There is little time from writing..  We'll see.

"Diaries" are supposed to be organized day-by-day, but long stays can be repetitive,  so I will shift to a theme organization, and add to each part as events unfurl. 

Themes:
-- Hotel
-- City Impressions
    ---- Old buildings
    ---- Panoramas
-- Events
    ---- BMX European Championship
    ---- Bastille Day Evening
    ---- Train trip to St. Emillion
-- Museums and Galleries
    ---- Contemporary Art
    ---- Fine Arts (Beaux Arts)
    ---- Interior Decoration (Decoratifs)
    ---- Wine and Business
    ---- Aquitaine (History)
-- Churches and other buildings
    ---- St. Adre Cathedral
    ---- Opera House
    ---- Basins de Flot (Submarine Base)
-- Meals (A French specialty)
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Wandering in Bordeaux -- Trip to St. Emillion 



Hotel
Hotel selection in a new town is always a bit iffy.  We  have a budget that we try to stay within.  We need parking for our car.  We need wifi for staying in touch. In a new town, we have little idea of which locations are near attractions, or even safe for that matter.  Solving all these for this trip was up to Marianne and Bordeaux was her first real test.  (Staying with friends in Lyon and the Perigord did not have these complications.)

Her choice was "La Villa", a four-room B & B, on the south edge of the old city center.  From internet information, it met all our criteria.  However, our very first impression had us wondering.  We managed to navigate near to the address, but it seemed a bit of a rough neighborhood: run-down buildings, folks hanging on the street, bars and small neighborhood shops.  As for the hotel, we could see nothing special at the specified address, so Marianne parked and I went looking. 

On a bright blue door was a small brass plaque saying "Chambres D'Hotes, La Villa" so I rang the bell.  A bright voice answered and, after I identified myself, Danielle Dubroca came to open the small door.  She and her husband Francois own and operate La Villa and have created an real oasis beyond the blue door.  As for parking, Danielle said I should just direct Marianne to the blue door and we should park just inside, kind of like parking in the lobby.  Our little car has never had as nice a home.

As for the rest, everything was perfect.  Our room was spacious and we could use the patio deck for even more room.  Danielle and Francois were helpful and gracious at every step.  Wifi worked, most of the time. Breakfasts were very nice and varied from morning to morning, although warm croissants were a staple.  And, with just four rooms, the setting could not be more relaxing.

As for the location, La Villa is in a part of town that is being gentrified, but that is a process in progress.  After a few days, we began to recognize faces, or at least places, and what had been scruffy became just "our neighborhood".  The 20-minute walk to the center of the old town became our excuse for eating the morning croissants.
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City Impressions

As I write this, we have only been here a few days, but our impression of Bordeaux is positive, especially if one likes old buildings with room for restoration, a weakness of ours.   There are literally thousands of 19th and early 20th Century buildings calling out for new, well-funded occupants.

We worked in the Saturday Market around St. Michael's church, but I think we had been spoiled by the market in the Croix Russe in Lyon.  I hope we find other outdoor markets before we leave, because I like taking pictures of the activity. (Didn't.)

After almost a week, I still found myself snapping building pictures.  On the north side of downtown, the old buildings are beautifully restored while on the south, our side, most still need attention.  Overall, Bordeaux seems like a city of growth, with improvements underway, even in these difficult economic times for the world.  Maybe the wine business is a bit counter-cyclical, with financial setbacks increasing wine consumption?

As for impressions of people, so far we have been struck by the variety we see, young and old, different shades, and a mix of wealth (or poverty).  Our neighborhood particularly includes the youth of a university town with the economic mix of an almost-up-and-coming city borough.  Good vibes.  We will see what the rest of our stay reveals.
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A couple of "pans" of the city. 
I have experimented with making panoramas before and I tried again.  The first was done in very early morning light of Victory Square, not far from the hotel.  Not very dramatic.  The second was of the Bordeaux waterfront and I set that one up with more care, tripod and all.  The final picture was made from 22 individual photos and the available detail is pretty amazing, although the full file is too big to really make available here as a link.  (It is certainly available for asking!)

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picts/thumbs/d120717B_92_detail.jpgThis is a detail from the panorama above.


Events

#1: BMX Championship
On the 13th through 15th of July, Bordeaux hosted the 2012 European Championship of BMX bike racers.  We visited the venue a couple of times and, while we understand nothing of the specifics of the sport, we enjoyed just watching the miniature racers leap over the hilly race course.  While there was an "over 40" division, we were satisfied with only watching.  Bike racers included very serious sportsmen, and women, zooming around the course in their colorful uniforms. 
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#2: Bastille Day
We were lucky to be in Bordeaux on July 14th for La Fête Nationale, Bastille Day to English-speakers.  The day was not unlike any others, but in the evening we attended a military ceremony and ended with fireworks.  The military ceremony was filled with French speeches, French songs, including Le Marseillaise more than once, and assorted military, police, and local government officials, all in their parade best.  We understood nothing of the words, but the pride in country service was plain to see.
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Later, we stopped by a sidewalk cafe and ordered snacks and, of course, good Bordeaux wine.  Actually, we ordered more than one wine, but the first glass could not have been classified as "good".  After that, we moved up in price a couple of euros.  Life's too short for bad wine.  From our cafe seats were were treated to a wonderful fireworks show and I was happy to have brought along the simple camera for a few shots (over 100 actually!)
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From here, we joined the thousands of people partying in the streets, except we used the time to walk home to La Villa.  Midnight was already late enough for us seniors.

#3: Train Trip to St. Emillion
On our last full day in Bordeaux, we decided to take a train to visit St. Emillion, a French "hill town" that is featured in many tour books.  The train ride from Bordeaux was fine and, at 11:00 am, the 25 minute walk into St. Emillion was nice, through vineyards and all. 

Inside the small city, our first stop was a "pottery museum", which we may have passed on if it hadn't promised some contemporary art as well as old Roman stuff.  The ticket-taker was most friendly.  He offered shawls to protect from the cold inside and he gave us a five minute summary of the place.  Th museum is housed in a cave that was part of the extensive stone quarry from which the town of St. Emillion was built.  Reportedly, there are miles of hand-carved quarry-caves, but the museum uses only a small part.  In fact, it was an interesting place, worth the 5 euro entrance fee.  The old pots and relics were in good shape and there were indeed displays of modern ceramics.  And the shawl was useful.

The town itself is as cute as any hill town we've seen, and we've seen a few by now.  Nicely restored buildings, plenty of restaurants, and dozens of wine stores.  There were high-end stores, selling 100 euro bottles and modest shops selling 35 euro cases of local drink.  We bought just a single bottle and then carried it around for the next several hours.

We also stopped for a very nice lunch (see below) and generally killed time, waiting for our 6pm train back.  I think our stay was an hour or two too long.  The one kilometer walk from town to the train station was nowhere near as pleasant as the same walk in the morning.  It was hot and we were tired and, later in Bordeaux, we faced yet another half-hour walk back to La Villa.  All in all, it was a good day, but we crashed exhausted.
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Train to St. Emillion and walk into town.
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Tour of the stone quarry.

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Museums and Galleries

#1: Contemporary Art Museum
Our first museum was the Contemporary Art Museum.  I must be getting brain-washed, but I actually enjoyed the "installations" of grand-scale art.  The French-only, no-photos,  architectural section looked worthwhile, but only for French-speaking architects and city planners.  Overall, the building itself, the old 19th Century warehouse for Bordeaux, was a very nice setting for everything.
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#2: Museum of Fine Arts (Beaux Arts)
On Sunday, we wanted to check out at last two museums on our list: the Museum of Fine Arts (Beaux Arts) and the Interior Decoration (Arts Decoratifs) Museum.   First the Beaux Arts. For me, it was just the right size, since 90% is closed for renovations.  All that is left is a salon showing art work stolen during the Nazi occupation from Jews, Communists, and other regime opponents. There is a policy to return all such art work to the heirs of the original owners, but many, including all those on display here in Bordeaux, can not be traced to their original owners.  This year, such art work is on display throughout France, in part to generate enough attention to track down ownership.  Maybe they are from your relatives?
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#3: Interior Decoration (Arts Decoratifs) Museum
Sunday afternoon, we went through the "Decoratifs" Museum.  I suppose that if you are into 17th and 18th Century furniture and decorations, this place would be quite interesting.  Unfortunately, it's not our cup of tea, or tea cup.  I found myself looking at details of the two old buildings, dating from the 1770's.  The architectural detail was properly elaborate and I was specifically taken by the varied wood floor patterns.  To each his own.
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Interiors and floors.
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#4: Musée d'Aquitaine (History Museum)
We arrived at the Musée d'Aquitaine right at opening (11:00, not the 10:00 promised in various guides) and looked forward to a quick reminder of shards and ruins before going off to lunch.  The Musée d'Aquitaine met our expectations; there were plenty of relics from the pre-Roman, Roman, and post-Roman past as well as some description of Aquitaine's role in world commerce.  (Bordeaux is in Aquitaine state or "Department".)  While it is interesting that this area, like so many others, were well-settled by Romans two centuries ago, we do zoom past the pot shards and broken statues.  Here are a few pictures to compare with other European history museums.
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Roman-era memorabilia.
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Middle Ages up through the slave trade.


#5: Wine and Business Museum
This small place was the only museum open on Monday, so we gave it a try.  For seven euros each, we guided ourselves through a wine-merchant-type cellar and might have learned a bit.  For example, wine originally did not age beyond a year or so due to bugs and contamination from barrel storage.  It was the inclusion of sulphate in the production that allowed longer storage, something the Romans knew but it took a few hundred years of bad wine for the Europeans to rediscover.  Another interesting factoid is that bottles, and English invention, were not common for wine until about the 18th Century and labels were only invented a hundred years after that.  Some well-known artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, have lent their artwork to label designs.  At the end of self-guiding, we were treated to one sample each of red and white Bordeaux wine, our before-lunch treat. 
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Churches and Specific Buildings

Here in Europe, we always have a tour of churches and castles.  So far, there is just one or two churches worth remarking on.

Cathedral
The St. Andre Cathedral, our three-zillionth European church, was not too bad.  The interior seemed particularly open, since the outer buttresses were on the outside of the walls, and the back altars reminded me of my altar boy days back at St. Aloysius' in Spokane.  Those are OLD memories!  In any event, we added to our collection of European church pictures.
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Opera House
I'm not sure if this was an "event" or a building, but I'll put it here to even the count.  We were just walking past the opera house on our way to the tourist information center when we saw some open doors.  We discovered that for a few euros we could have a self-guided tour, one of the best of such tours we've had, as it turns out.  The Bordeaux Opera House presents all sorts of history and explanation of opera staging since the Baroque period.  There are explanations of "flying" and of curtain-raising, as well a costume and jewelry displays that were fun and challenging to photograph.  Maybe we even learned something.
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Bassins à flot
This seems like the closest thing Bordeaux has to a fortress-castle.  I suppose it was a 20th Century "marine fortress".

On the north side of downtown, an area called "Bassins à Flot" (Fleet Harbor) is undergoing re-development . In World War II, this was a major German installation and included a massive building in which to service submarines.  The roof was reportedly 5 meters (16 feet) of steel-reinforced concrete.  Nowadays, that building still stands and a few of the other WWII buildings have found use as shops, restaurants, and small manufacturing space.  It is an easy tram ride on Line B and definitely gave us an off-the-beaten-path feeling.
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WWII German submarine base.
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Other marine relics.
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A small contemporary art display.

Eating (it's France after all)

So far (by Sunday lunchtime), our eating in Bordeaux has been fairly simple.  Francois and Danielle put on a good breakfast, of course, but half of our other meals have been snacks, healthy snacks of fruits and vegetables and wine, but not real meals.  We just finished a Sunday lunch at Le Petite Commerce, a fish establishment recommended in the old town.  The setting was charming, the food was good, if not great, and I'm sure the staff was all hungover from last night's Bastille Day celebrations.  Our other meals have been at nondescript small restaurants,  good enough, but not worth  a mention, positive or negative. 

Now that we have been here a few days, we finally asked our hostess for recommendations and now we have a list longer than our stay. The neighborhood place she recommended, La Plana, was quite good and I always prefer to have something nearby.  I'll bet we go there again. (We did.)
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Breakfast and snacks at La Villa
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Unremembered and La Petit Commerce
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Cafe Maritime
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In St. Emillion
Eventually, we found more places.  So far (Tuesday), our favorite was today's lunch at Cafe Maritime in the Bassins a Flot area.  In a non-descript building we were surprised by a large, sophisticated restaurant, and we enjoyed good lunch specials (19 euros each, including a glass of wine).  On Wednesday, were were also pleased by the l'Absolu Cafe Bar & Vins restaurant in St. Emillion.

Conclusion
A "conclusion" huh?  Hard to say.  Maybe we stayed a day or two too long, or a week or two too short.  We missed some features, at least according to the tour books I am now reading AFTER our stay.  (Why?  Becaue they are useful for this diary.)  Yet, the last couple of days seemed too much.  Maybe the lesson is that, no matter where, a stay can be too long and should be replaced by two shorter stays.

In any event, we do recommend Bordeaux, and La Villa.

John and Marianne

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